On Religion & Liberalism

Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, has for years been peddling the notion that most middle-class Americans who believe in God want to lead a good life (which they alone will define) and are opposed to applying moral convictions to public policy. They also hold, he asserts, that religious structures – i.e., church, synagogue, and less tangible formal arrangements – are not a requirement for belief. The late Richard John Neuhaus used to say that Wolfe strangely shows little interest in or knowledge of American religion for a person in his position. Wolfe’s new book, The Future of Liberalism, confirms that judgment.

Wolfe has nothing new to say on the subject. He repeats the old liberal nostrum that one should be autonomous “to live your life on terms you establish,” not exactly, you might think, the central vision for a center on religion and public life at a Jesuit university. Wolfe contends that liberals have been on the lam for forty years because they were afraid to be liberal – they were intimidated by extremists on the left and right. But thanks to Barack Obama, they are now in vogue and should be out on the hustings converting the masses.

For Wolfe, welfare-state liberalism permits people to be independent and mobile. To promote individual autonomy, the state should not hesitate to be notoriously illiberal by intruding in the economy and the bedroom. Generous welfare benefits and abortion on demand will free people to live life to the fullest.

To justify this creed, Wolfe turns to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who he claims “expresses ideas that every liberal ought to welcome.”

In one sense, this is quite odd, because Kant, although the champion of individual sovereignty, also believes in a strict sense of duty. But Kant has become a hero to some liberals because they like how he relocates the sources of morality from the objective world around us (which he believes our intellects cannot really reach) to principles within our own minds. In Kant, this turn was intended to preserve morality in a scientific age; but in others’ hands it degenerates into a denial of moral absolutes and a radical assertion of personal autonomy.

For Kant, a key word, repeated with heavy Germanic emphasis, is duty. And everyone who has studied philosophy has been taught the famous categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

But at the same time Kant makes man autonomous, a being who prescribes laws to himself in a sense, not a participant in the natural law. Kant is therefore useful to thinkers like Wolfe because he indirectly provides a rationale for their fundamental belief that there are no absolute truths, no unconditional principles or laws. All becomes relative. The basis of democracy is the very changing push and pull of diverse individual opinions and tastes. As John Paul II and Benedict XVI have pointed out, many of our fellow citizens have come to believe that skepticism is the precondition for democracy. Beliefs in transcendent order, metaphysics, common law, a fixed human nature, and other customs and prescriptions, must be replaced with concepts that make room for autonomous choices.

As for Wolfe’s view of society, he denies that we are endowed by God with an appetite and inclination for social life, or that we form society by the demands and impulses of our rational nature working through free will. Instead, he takes a Hobbesian approach that society is an artificial product of human agreement. Wolfe says society is not “natural” or “divinely ordained” and that for liberals, “constraints are not imposed by authorities over which people have no control or shaped by traditions they cannot influence, they are established instead by people themselves through some form of consent or social contract…. Once we have left the state of nature, we require the existence of society.”

By contrast, Catholic social doctrine regards the state as subject to a higher law, which compels judges and legislators to respect the inherent dignity of men by recognizing that government’s powers are limited. Authority in a natural society cannot come from the individuals composing the society, but must come from the author of the natural law from which natural societies derive their existence – God. The Founding Fathers of the United States had a strong sense of that as well. Even Jefferson, the least pious of our founders, once said that no society had ever been governed without God, or can be.

Personal autonomy and a society based on nothing but human will have become the default settings for a certain kind of contemporary liberalism. The few people likely to read and agree with Alan Wolfe’s The Future of Liberalism will find in it little new except a renewed hope in this empty vision, which is, by its very nature, destined to fall apart, sooner rather than later. But others might find at least one novelty here: is this the kind of leadership a major Catholic institution – Boston College – really intends to provide in an institute of religion and American public life?

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.